Listen to the article

The resurgence of the sleeper train service between Berlin and Paris marks a renewed enchantment with the railway’s romance, a sentiment that has long captivated writers, musicians and filmmakers. This allure is evidenced in one of the earliest cinematic feats, the 1896 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which famously incited terror in its audience, who believed they were on the verge of being crushed in their seats.

Historically, trains have served as dynamic backdrops for narratives steeped in love, mystery and peril, featuring prominently in numerous artistic masterpieces.

Romantic Intrigue and Resurgence

Despite their romantic allure, night trains experienced a decline in popularity at the beginning of this century, leading to the closure of most lines in Europe during the 2010s. However, in response to the rising demand for low-emission travel alternatives, several European nations are revisiting the idea of reviving these services. On Monday, December 11, government ministers were present to celebrate the inaugural journey of the first Berlin-Paris night train in nine years, embarking on a 10-hour odyssey to Paris. This service, initially operating three times a week in each direction, is slated to become a daily operation by October 2024.

According to Andrew Martin, author of Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper, night trains garnered popularity post-World War I as prices became more accessible and Europeans sought respite from the war’s aftermath. This period saw the birth of a distinct genre of literature and film, with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express standing as a particularly notable example.

Trains have also been the setting for pivotal romantic encounters, as seen in David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Bollywood’s 1969 Aradhana featured one of its most iconic scenes with superstar Rajesh Khanna serenading his love from a jeep alongside the Darjeeling toy train. Alfred Hitchcock frequently utilized trains as a venue for conspiracies in Strangers on a Train, disappearances in The Lady Vanishes or romantic encounters in North by Northwest, the latter concluding with a famed innuendo-laden scene of a train entering a tunnel.

High-Octane Action

The combination of high speed and confined spaces has given rise to unforgettable cinematic moments. Tom Cruise’s death-defying leaps between a helicopter and a train in Mission: Impossible and his navigation of tumbling carriages in the series’ latest installment are prime examples. James Bond’s train adventures range from Sean Connery’s intense carriage fight in From Russia With Love to Daniel Craig’s dramatic plunge in Skyfall, with Roger Moore’s memorable, albeit cringe-worthy, gorilla disguise on a circus train in Octopussy.

The daring realism of Buster Keaton in 1926’s The General stands out, particularly for a scene where he drives a locomotive onto a collapsing bridge, a stunt that remains the most expensive in silent film history. Bollywood’s 1975 Sholay also made a mark with its thrilling train robbery scene featuring galloping horses.

Musical and Artistic Interpretations

Trains have served as poignant metaphors in music, symbolizing journeys home or paths gone astray. Johnny Cash’s yearning for freedom in Folsom Prison Blues and Soul Asylum’s portrayal of depression in Runaway Train exemplify this. Cat Stevens’ call for peace in Peace Train and Ozzy Osbourne’s expression of Cold War anxieties in Crazy Train further illustrate the train’s metaphorical versatility.

In the realm of painting, the dynamic imagery of trains, with their billowing smoke and sense of modernity, has inspired experimental artists. JMW Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed and Claude Monet’s series on Paris’ Gare St Lazare station are celebrated examples of this fascination.

Trains as Symbols of Societal Change

Literary giants have often used trains as symbols of impending doom and societal transformation. Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, portrayed trains as ominous harbingers of death. Emile Zola’s The Beast Within likened trains to relentless machines, mirroring the protagonist’s descent into madness. In cinema, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story depicted trains as agents of family separation, while Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West used them to signal the end of an era. Snowpiercer, in its various forms, presents trains as a dystopian metaphor for the last remnants of civilization in a climate-ravaged world.

This renewed interest in sleeper trains not only signifies a shift towards sustainable travel but also rekindles the timeless intrigue and artistic inspiration that railways have historically provided.

With AFP.